Ever since I began cooking professionally, the art and process of fermentation have fascinated me. So much so that Wild Fermentation, a book by self-taught fermentation revivalist Sandor Ellix Katz, was the only book, besides my own personal recipe notebooks, that I brought with me when I first moved to France. Considering how little space I had in my suitcase at the time, that is saying a lot.
Katz’s book came out in 2003, but it was five years ago or so, just as I was leaving Vancouver, that the art of fermentation – and the book’s influence – had really started to pick up steam. Katz’s philosophy and approach simplified fermentation, making the process of preparing and eating this food joyful and accessible.
Simultaneously, a food movement called New Nordic Cuisine had been growing in Scandinavia, led by chef René Redzepi and his now two-star Michelin restaurant Noma. The Nordic food movement focuses on the reinvention of traditional Scandinavian foods and regional specialties through a deep exploration of the use of hyper-local and seasonal ingredients. In order to keep their food interesting throughout the year, they rely on an extensive larder, which is especially useful in order to supplement during leaner winter months when fresh vegetables, for example, are less likely to be available.
For more than 16 years, Redzepi and his cooks have dedicated their lives to building the best pantry they can. No wonder the time-honoured tradition of fermentation has also become of major interest to them.
Redzepi has since dedicated a book of his own to the subject. The Noma Guide to Fermentation, co-authored by Redzepi and Canadian David Zilber, takes a slightly different approach than previous Noma cookbooks, focusing in this technique, one of the most important used at the restaurant.
Although Redzepi describes his team’s foray into the world of fermentation as “a story of accidents,” the book is far from being one itself. It is a heavily researched reference tool that documents everything they have learned as they have continued to hone in on the use of fermentation at Noma.
In the book, Redzepi speaks to his first experiences with fermentation in which he and his cooks preserve some ramson berries in a series of experiments they would, at the time, refer to as “curing” or “maturing," rather than fermenting. The results, he says, were a “revelation.”
I can relate. The first time I tasted fermented cabbage sauerkraut, which my friend Camille had been fermenting for about a month in her basement, the sour, but rich, flavour burst in my mouth. It was like nothing I had ever tasted. I was intrigued, excited and oh-so-ready to learn more about this process.
Over time, however, this feeling diminished, as many things one can be excited about in the kitchen tend to do. But Redzepi and Zilber’s book has awoken in me the excitement I first felt all those years ago. I am once again that young woman first moving to Paris with her Sandor Katz book under her arm, ready to tackle these new recipes with renewed excitement and vigour. As a seasoned cook who is sometimes apt to get stuck in her own head, routine and ideas, I am grateful to find so much inspiration from reading about the my peers’ contemporary approach to fermentation. This book is a vital addition to my library.
It should be noted that the recipes in this book can be … demanding. Some dishes require specialized equipment and ingredients to produce them. Still, I think that in a world of filler-laden, low-quality processed foods, a cookbook that highlights traditional foods ways and practices, and brings them back into our consciousness is important. Food security is more crucial now than ever before and it is wonderful that restaurants, such as Noma, are able to use their success and influence to share such valuable knowledge. It also doesn’t hurt that the recipes contained within the book are different and exciting enough to make one want to go the extra mile in order to make it happen.
One such recipe is for a surprising variation on kombucha. Kombucha, according to The Noma Guide to Fermentation, “is a soured and lightly fermented beverage, traditionally made from sweetened tea.” Here, however, Redzepi and Zilber have flipped this idea on its head by swapping the tea out for coffee resulting in a vibrant, complex and fruity brew.
I chose this recipe because, having made kombucha simply with tea for years now, this is a fairly intriguing take on the recipe. Coffee kombucha also gets extra points in my books because it gives a second life to used coffee grounds.
To create this accurately, you will need a scale (though approximate conversions have been provided). And if you don’t already have a kombucha mother, or SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast), on hand, and you don’t know anyone who can give you one, you might be just as intrigued as I was to find out that you can order one through Amazon. The SCOBY generally arrives vacuum sealed along with a starter liquid that can be used to help jumpstart, or “backslop,” your first batch of kombucha with a healthy dose of good bacteria in order to kick things off. After each use, save a portion of your resulting kombucha to immediately start a new batch, or store the SCOBY submerged in this portion of the liquid in a sealed jar in the fridge until the next use.
Finally, make sure to allow yourself two days in order to properly prepare this recipe as you will need to infuse the coffee grounds and the liquid overnight in the refrigerator.
Ingredients (Makes 2 litres)
- 240 grams (approximately 1 cup + 1 tablespoon) sugar
- 1.76 kilograms (approximately 7 ½ cups) water
- 730 grams (approximately 3 1/3 cups) leftover coffee grounds, or 200 grams (approximately 2 ¼ cups) freshly ground coffee
- 200 grams (just under 1 cup) unpasteurized kombucha (or the liquid that comes with a packaged SCOBY)
- 1 SCOBY
Coffee kombucha offers a second life to used coffee grounds, which still have plenty of flavour to give up. If you prefer, you can use new grounds, but note that you’ll use much less of the fresh stuff. Look for coffee that hasn’t been roasted too dark, which can turn it quite bitter – a lighter roast will allow the complex fruitiness of a good coffee to shine through.
Bring the sugar and 240 grams of the water to a boil in a medium pot, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Meanwhile, put the coffee grounds in a nonreactive heat-proof container. Pour the hot syrup over the coffee, then add the remaining 1.52 kilograms of water. Let the coffee mixture come to room temperature and transfer to the fridge overnight.
The following day, strain the coffee liquid through a fine-mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth into the fermentation vessel. Backslop the infusion by stirring in the 200 grams unpasteurized kombucha. Wearing gloves, carefully place the SCOBY into the liquid. Cover the top of the fermentation vessel with cheesecloth or a breathable kitchen towel and secure with a rubber band. Label the kombucha and set it in a warm place.
Leave the kombucha to ferment, tracking its progress each day. Make sure the top of the SCOBY doesn’t dry out; use a ladle to moisten it with some of the liquid, if necessary. Once you’re happy with the flavour of your kombucha – probably between 7 and 10 days from the start – transfer the SCOBY to a container for storage and strain the kombucha. Consume immediately or refrigerate, freeze or bottle it.
Suggested use: Coffee-Kombucha Tiramisu.
The next time you’re having a dinner party, make a tiramisu, using coffee kombucha in place of coffee to soak your ladyfingers. Tiramisu is quite rich and sweet with custard, and the pleasantly vibrant bite of coffee kombucha acts as a perfect counterpoint.
Excerpted from Foundations of Flavor: The Noma Guide to Fermentation by René Redzepi and David Zilber (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2018. Photographs by Evan Sung. Illustrations by Paula Troxler. Used with permission from the publisher.
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